One-Minute Book Reviews

April 27, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check — A Review of the 2009 Fiction Winner, Elizabeth Strout’s Short Story Collection, ‘Olive Kitteridge’

The latest in a series of occasional posts on the winners of or finalists for major literary prizes

Olive Kitteridge. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 304 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

It tells you something about Olive Kitteridge that two of its 13 short stories were published in Seventeen and O, The Oprah Magazine: This is one of the lighter-weight winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It tells you more that two other stories appeared in The New Yorker and South Carolina Review: These tales, if often moving, have the disjointed quality of scenes from different dreams.

The linchpin of the collection is Olive Kitteridge, a retired junior-high math teacher in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, who appears at least briefly in every story. At first, the pace of the book is somnolent and the title character so nasty she verges on caricature. But the collection picks up steam – and Olive, some humanity – after 30 or so pages.

In the fourth story, “A Little Burst,” comes the great scene in the book. At her middle-aged son’s wedding reception, Olive slips into the just-married couple’s bedroom and flinches when, through an open window, she hears her new daughter-in-law mocking her mother-of-the-bride dress. It is a dress she loves and has made from a green fabric imprinted with big reddish-pink geraniums: “Her heart really opened when she came across the gauzy muslin in So-Fro’s; sunlight let into the anxious gloom of the upcoming wedding; those flowers skimming over the table in her sewing room.” Wounded and uncomprehending, Olive steals two of her daughter-in-law’s possessions from the couple’s bedroom – a loafer and “a shiny pale blue bra, small-cupped and delicate.” She also defaces a sweater with a black Magic Marker, then neatly folds it and puts back on its closet shelf. Olive finds that her vandalism does not help much, but “it does help some,” to know that Sue will go through her belongings and think: “I must be losing my mind, I can’t keep track of anything…. And, my God, what happened to my sweater?” This tale offers not just a finely wrought portrait of a frightened woman’s projection of her own anxieties about her only child’s belated wedding — it is Olive herself who may be losing her mind — but can be read as a chilling tale of a mother’s symbolic, if unconscious, rape of her son.

As a self-contained story, “A Little Burst” works beautifully. This is a tale of a nervous breakdown that may betoken a mental illness such as psychosis. The problem comes when you read the story against others that leave a contradictory impression: Olive is not mentally ill but starved for love in her marriage to a kind but insufficient pharmacist (or, as an atheist, has a spiritual hunger she can’t admit). In some tales, Olive plays such an inconsequential role that you wonder if Elizabeth Strout shoehorned them into the book by altering the stories after publication. This is especially true of “Ship in a Bottle,” which appeared in Seventeen 1992 and has clearly since been revised to include a veiled reference to torture at Abu Ghraib prison, which didn’t become known until 2004.

Olive Kitteridge ends, as good novels typically do, with a redemption of sorts. But because the book isn’t a novel, it hasn’t built toward that transformation as novels do. Its ending has less force, diluted by digressions into lives of characters who relate to it obliquely if at all. When Olive finally chooses to accept love, in however imperfect a form, you wonder if such a decision would be possible for someone who for so long has hated so much about the world.

Best line: From “A Little Burst”: “Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as ‘big bursts’ and ‘little bursts.’ Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.”

Worst line: No. 1: “He’s a spoiled brat to the manor born.” Another misquotation of Shakespeare’s “to the manner born.” No. 2: “ … he’d eat a sandwich that had spilling from it mayonnaisey clumps of egg salad or tuna fish, landing on his shirt.” Pray that “mayonnaisey” isn’t the next “garlicky.” No. 3: “The Scottish were scrappy and tough …” The people of Scotland and their descendants almost always call themselves the Scots, not the “Scottish,” a word used mainly as an adjective. As an alternate term for the Scots, “the Scottish” is correct but stilted. No. 4: The multiple uses of “Ay-yuh,” northern New England slang for “Yes” or “Yup.” Strout grew up in Maine and must have heard the expression as “ay-yuh.” But the phrase is usually rendered “ay-yup,” as a Voice of America report notes, and it sounded like “ay-yup” when I lived in New Hampshire.

Read an excerpt from Olive Kitteridge.

Published: March 2008 (hardcover), September 2008 (paperback). Olive Kitteredge was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Furthermore: The marketing campaign for Olive Kitteridge misrepresents the book as “a novel in stories” when it is a short story cycle. For more on this issue, see yesterday’s post.

About the author: Strout also wrote Amy and Isabelle and Abide With Me. She lives in New York City.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, the book columnist for Glamour and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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